Reimagining United Methodist Education

Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, NC.

What would it look like for United Methodist colleges and universities to be identifiably Wesleyan in ethos and practice?  Most Mainline-related institutions of higher education have very little about them that is recognizably Christian: maybe a rarely used, symbolically neutral chapel, or perhaps a required religion class that may or may not have anything to do with Jesus.  Some formerly religious universities are even shunning any organization that would expect certain beliefs (say, the resurrection or the Trinity) from its leadership.

To explore this question, I present to you an interesting exercise.  I have replaced “Catholic” with “Methodist” in the quote by R.R. Reno below. I believe the thrust of his argument (found in an article here) still holds.  The only problem is, no one is seems to be interested in what the Wesleyan tradition has to say to higher education.  See what you think:

Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I don’t think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Methodist universities should challenge students—with the full force of the Methodist tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of “difference” or easy moves of “critique,” which bright students master and mimic very quickly.

I don’t think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Methodist education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints.

Ironically, I read this the same day I watched the opening mass for Catholic University of America.  Cardinal Wuerl drew on the tradition that R.R. Reno names, challenging students, especially the incoming freshmen, that there is more to their education than just career ambition.  Rather, he beautifully articulated the gospel’s call, preached and lived by Jesus, to live for something above and beyond self.  With the Spirit’s power, Christian students ought to be driven to transform the world inspired by the vision of the One who proclaimed, “I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

To receive that power and see that vision, the Cardinal then led the whole assembly in the celebration of the Eucharist.

By contrast, the United Methodist university I attended has not, as best as I can tell, had Communion celebrated in at least a decade and probably more.  And it’s not merely apathy to the sacrament.  I was honored to be invited a couple of years ago to preach at the chapel service on homecoming weekend.  I requested that we have Communion as part of that service – because what, after all, says “homecoming” for Methodists more so than gathering around the Lord’s Table?

But I was told “no” by the alumni office.  So many students and alum are not Methodists, you see – what they were really saying is that we have all these Catholic students – that we wouldn’t want them to feel unwelcome.

For a Catholic university, that would be unthinkable.  The Mass is who they are, regardless of who goes to school there.

I suspect the neglect of the Eucharist and the neglect of United Methodist identity and formation in holiness at our educational institutions are intimately related.  We believe Communion is a sacrament, a means of grace, a way to grow closer to God.

But we have, as best as i can tell, abdicated the vision of the Wesleys who began the tradition of Methodist education: educating people both for their own flourishing and as part of our comprehensive mission as followers of Jesus to renew and sanctify ourselves and our communities in all aspects of life.  At our best, Methodists have not educated young people so that they can go out and be decent, middle-class citizens with 2.5 children and an SUV.

At our most Wesleyan, we have educated young people so that their lives can flourish in holiness and thus be a blessing to others.  We educate soteriologically.  Our goal ought not to be merely informational, but formational.  James K.A. Smith, in a recent lecture at Harvard, made an excellent case for why Christians in general should be invested in this vision for higher learning.

A lofty ideal, of course.  But then, we are a people who claim to strive after perfection.  What would it look like for our colleges and universities to take that seriously?

One example that goes against the grain that I have been identifying – that is, a United Methodist university that is proud of its Methodist heritage and builds on its faith-based identity – is Pfeiffer University outside of Charlotte, NC. I would encourage any United Methodists considering college to seriously consider Pfeiffer.

What do you think? Are Presbyterians, Lutherans, or others doing any better than Methodists are in educating for holiness? Are there other UMC colleges I should know about?  

9 thoughts on “Reimagining United Methodist Education”

  1. My daughter just began her freshman year at Millsaps College. There is an active “Wesley Fellowship” there that involves both the College Chaplain (a Duke educated UM Elder in the Virginia Conference) and the pastoral staff of several of the neighboring UM churches. Car pooling to Sunday services at the UM churches is also coordinated by the College Chaplain. The Chaplain also leads a “Chaplain’s Bible Study.” A worship service that sought to include the particular religious traditions represented in the student body (including those of “no tradition”) was a required part of the orientation. I’m not aware that Eucharist has been celebrated this year, but it certainly WAS celebrated by the (UM Clergy) religion faculty members near Christmas when my wife and I were Millsaps undergraduates in the late 1970s.

    There is also a MAJOR emphasis on “One Campus, One Community” in which the Wesleyan ethos of “service” to the community is carried out. My daughter will receive academic credit for involvement in community service and reflection on the meaning of service and the challenges of Mississippi’s Capital City.

  2. I am about halfway through an MDiv program at Perkins and was talking about this issue with a classmate this weekend. I think we’re just too prone to false dichotomies. At Perkins we noted a tragic stereotype that has emerged over the years–namely that Perkins produces graduates who know a lot about systematic theology, but has created terrible, stale preachers!
    Relating to your post… People assume that authenticity to denominational tradition will necessarily lead to retrenched faith, void of any serious engagement with the world. Can’t the two coexist? I’d say that you couldn’t have one without the other…
    I also think the most unfortunate thing about all this is that education is not exactly the sexiest topic compared to other hot button issues, yet it’s one of the most important!

    1. Billy, I could have made it clearer that i was thinking mostly of undergraduate institutions in this post, though I think some of the critiques and concerns also hold. We certainly have more than a few seminaries that are more about say, evangelicalism, or process theology, or liberation theology, or world religions than training pastors for UMC parishes. I agree fully that education is too oft-neglected. I’m heartened by how much this has resonated with my readers; I’ve never really written about this before, so that was a pleasant surprise. Blessings on your studies.

  3. Wow. That really sucks that they wouldn’t let you do communion. It’s interesting to me to ponder this as the director of a Wesleyan student group on a secular campus. Maybe it’s the evangelical in me but I want to be aggressive in offering Eucharist to our campus by doing it in public space. I’m not sure how the vision is going to work itself out yet, but God seems to be saying to make the campus into his monastery so I’m trying to figure out how to do that faithfully.

  4. My daughter was thisclose to choosing Loyola. The President of LU is a Jesuit, as are several faculty. There is Mass daily. I think, in 2014, that would mean NOLA Wesley won’t have administrative interference with Eucharist. That might or might not have been true in 1914.

  5. The Wesleyan based mission and identity at my alma mater (Dakotas Wesleyan University) continue to grow each year. Lately I’ve become quite proud and almost wish I was 18 and could attend now.

    Interestingly enough, their President, who comes from a Catholic background, and who I believe still is, does a phenomenal job articulating and executing their faith based education.

    In the past decade, both entrepreneurial and public service departments have been created, with connections to Christian service and formation at their foundation. And in the last couple of years, a UM church was birthed on campus.

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